A stout man in military uniform wakes up in a playground in Rome and is perturbed to see many dark-skinned children.
“We’re under invasion,” he mutters, before brushing the dust off his uniform and walking away. He keeps walking, never turning left, but stops when he sees the date on a newspaper – April 2017.
For the man is none other than Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini and he is not supposed to be alive, having been killed in 1945 by freedom fighters.
But Mussolini is back – at least in the movie Sono Tornato (I’m Back).
The third-highest grossing movie during its opening weekend early this month, it has raised questions about Italians’ tendency to forget the lessons of history and the enduring appeal of right-wing politicians in the country.
The movie comes as Italy gears up for a general election on March 4 to appoint its 65th government since the fall of fascism. Questions about the appeal of Mussolini and right-wing parties are especially relevant now, with anti-immigration and far-right populist parties looking likely to come to power.
The centrist Democratic Party of Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni is trailing a centre-right coalition led by media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi and a populist party called the Five Star Movement in the polls.
Unlike the Germans, who have done much soul-searching about the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, Italians have not reflected as deeply on the rise of Mussolini.
While the dictator remains a taboo subject, Italians view him with a mix of guilt and nostalgia.
They recognise that Mussolini’s regime was a repressive one that persecuted Jews and its political enemies, but some also credit him for laying the foundations for Italy’s modern welfare state.
Mussolini was said to have contributed to the establishment of pension funds, trade unions and state oil companies, and also ordered that land be given to farmers and World War I refugees.
The movie has generally garnered positive reviews, with independent film critic Gabriele Niola praising it for shedding light on rising anti-migrant populism in Italy.
Still, a movie about Mussolini is not without controversy. The fact that it was released on Feb 1, a few days after the Holocaust Memorial Day celebrations, also triggered criticism.
At a press conference in Rome, the movie’s director Luca Miniero said: “The idea that Mussolini returns is scary because we all know Italians have become populists, thanks to the media”.
In the movie, Mussolini explores modern-day Italy and gets a chance on a TV show to lecture the people: “You Italians are a people without memory,” he says. “When I left, you were illiterate. Now I come back and I still find you illiterate, paralysed in front of your mobile phones and TV screens, dazed and full of terror. Italy is falling into a precipice, and you need a WhatsApp alert message to notice this?”
Miniero also wanted to highlight that Italians had a part to play in enabling the rise of Mussolini.
“The soft, nostalgic feelings expressed by people in the movie towards his coming back reveal a disquieting moral heritage: That Mussolini is one of us,” he said.
In the movie, people line up to shoot selfies with the tyrant, laughing and saluting him in the traditional fascist right-arm-raised style.
Mussolini, who aims to rebuild his empire, asks bartenders, butchers and farmers: “Do you think tyranny is good, would you like it again?”
Many reply: “Yes.”
“I haven’t created fascism. I just borrowed it from the conscience of Italians,” says Mussolini.
In fact, fascism is not quite dead in the country – a splinter of the defunct fascist party Fratelli d’Italia will run in the centre-right coalition led by Mr Berlusconi.
The movie has struck a chord too for its frank dissection of the problems plaguing Italy, whose youth unemployment rates are above the European average and where old people outnumber newborn babies.
Mrs Rosi Scrulli, 60, a pensioner living in Rome, found it balanced. “The film is funny when it makes fun of the tyrant, but at the same time also very serious when it depicts the decline of Italian society.”
Indeed, in the movie, Mussolini gets angry with his admirers and admonishes them: “We are still at war, and you don’t even see it. Our enemies are our high unemployment, poverty, low birth rates. Yet the biggest ambition for young people is to become chefs.”
Some politicians have warned Italians against forgetting the lessons of history. During the recent Holocaust Memorial Day, Ms Anna Finocchiaro, Minister for Relations with Parliament, said it was important to remember the Holocaust.
The Democratic Party politician also sounded a warning against electoral “fascist revivals”, saying “without memory there is no future”.